What fate for Turkey's stray dogs?

A stray dog in front of a shop in Istanbul
A stray dog in front of a shop: in many of Turkey's major cities, animals live alongside people as a matter of course. But on 20 May, President Erdogan declared that their numbers were getting out of control and that he no longer wanted to see dogs on the streets (image: Mehmet Diren)

The Turkish government's draft bill seeking euthanasia for stray dogs en masse has raised concerns among animal rights activists and many in the country. But some say attacks by dogs are increasingly alarming and that such danger must be removed from the streets

By Ayşe Karabat

The Turks are a nation of animal lovers, with stray animals dotting the streets in many major cities in the country, living in harmony with humans. 

Since 20 May, however, animal-loving Turkish citizens have been on tenterhooks: that was the day Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan instructed his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) to find a solution to the long-running problem of stray dogs. 

Erdogan said the issue had got out of control and he did not want to see dogs on the streets, despite widespread affection for strays in Turkey. 

Many neighbourhoods in Turkey, especially in Istanbul, have their own local resident dogs. They are all known by name to locals of the neighbourhood. It is also quite common to see people feed strays and build homes for them. 

A stray dog in an Istanbul park
Most Turks harbour a certain affection for stray dogs. In many districts of Turkish cities, especially in Istanbul, there are real "neighbourhood dogs". Local residents know them all by name (image: Mehmet Diren)

Fear of aggressive dogs

Taking care of stray animals has been a tradition in Turkey since the Ottomans, when there were actual officers paid by the state to feed strays. But it appears this co-existence of humans and stray dogs may come to an end. 

Increasingly people have been complaining they are afraid of dogs, fearing they might attack. There are many X accounts posting videos showing aggressive dogs attacking humans, not to mention car accidents allegedly caused by them. 

Fed up with the attacks and using a World Health Organisation (WHO) classification that identifies Turkey as a high-risk country for rabies, campaigners who have long used the slogan "We want streets without dogs!” have finally convinced the government to draw up legislation aimed at curbing the number of strays. 

"We have a problem with stray dogs that does not exist in any developed country," Erdogan said on 29 May, urging "more radical measures". But the draft bill has prompted an outcry from animal rights activists, who believe that if and when it is becomes law, it will lead to a nationwide massacre of dogs. 

A sleeping dog in front of a cafe in Istanbul
The current draft law provides for dogs to be euthanised if no home can be found for them. Municipalities are already obliged to neuter stray animals. In future, street dogs are to be caught and photographed (image: Mehmet Diren)

Up for adoption

The draft bill is currently seeking to euthanise dogs if homes cannot be found for them. According to the draft, municipalities, which under current legislation are already obligated to neuter stray animals, will catch street dogs and photograph them. 

These photographs will remain on their websites for a period of 30 days: during this time, the dogs will supposedly be kept in shelters. Most municipalities, however, don't have shelters. 

Those dogs lucky enough to be adopted will be tracked with implanted chips for the rest of their lives. But, if within 30 days, a home cannot be found for them, they will be put down, and another cohort of dogs will be brought into the shelters to face the same fate. This will continue until the last homeless dog on the streets disappears. 

When details of the draft emerged, it was met with fury, and not only by animal right activists, but by many ordinary citizens as well. Protests were held across the country. On 2 June, thousands of protesters gathered in major Turkish provinces, including Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir, and chanted: "No to the massacre!"

"If this law passes, an unprecedented massacre of animals will be inevitable in our country's history," the Union of Bar Associations of Turkey said in a written statement. 

It argued that street animals, which have been a part of these lands for centuries and are described as "dear friends" whenever possible, deserve better than a death warrant or being condemned to death-camp-like shelters.

Two dogs in front of a cafe in Istanbul
When the details of the new draft law became known, not only animal rights activists but also many other people reacted with outrage. Protests broke out across the country. On 2 June, thousands of demonstrators gathered in Turkey's major provinces, including Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir, chanting: "No to the massacre!" (image: Mehmet Diren)

Municipalities fail to play their part

The Animal Rights Law, last revised in 2021, obliges municipalities to allocate 0.5 percent of their budgets over a period of three years to animal shelters and their rehabilitation. For metropolitan municipalities, this rate is set at 0.3 percent. The law also requires municipalities to establish shelters by the end of 2024. But many of them have failed to do so. 

According to the Animal Rights Federation, 1,100 of the 1,394 municipalities in Turkey lack shelters, and those that do have shelters lack effective sterilisation programmes. Under these conditions, animal rights activists fear that if the draft bill is finalised, stray dogs will be killed en masse. 

This fear is not unfounded. There have been much footage circulating on social media showing the poor conditions of animals in shelters. One of them, showing a dog being beaten to death in a municipality's animal rehabilitation centre in the central Anatolian province of Konya, triggered a massive reaction in 2022. 

In the same year, in the eastern province of Elazig, prosecutors said the treatment of animals at a shelter run by the local municipality amounted to "genocide", following the death of 1,062 animals there in a mere four months. 

Shelters in poor condition

Rojda Kurus, from the Izmir Bar Association Animal Rights Committee, recalled these incidents and said that if the draft bill is finalised, animals might be put down even without general anaesthesia. 

Animal rights defenders argue that the best solution for stray dogs is a mass sterilisation programme, releasing the dogs back into the areas where they lived before they were rounded up. 

Alper Karmis, the chair of the Association to Keep Paws on the Street Alive, was keen to point out the poor conditions in the shelters, saying that Turkey failed in its sterilisations because municipalities did not comply with the law and the state failed to conduct any inspections. 

"The population is increasing before our eyes. A sterilisation campaign needs to be started from one end of the country to the other. Dogs that chase people and form packs should be taken into the rehabilitation process. Non-governmental organisations and volunteers should contribute to the process," he said.

An dieser Stelle finden Sie einen externen Inhalt, der den Inhalt ergänzt. Sie können ihn sich mit einem Klick anzeigen lassen.

Few strays find new homes

After fierce backlash from animal rights groups and citizens, Erdogan said he hopes all the animals in the shelters will be adopted and municipalities will fulfil their responsibility. He said he believes that with this, a "huge problem will be solved" and that further steps will not be needed. 

Dog ownership, however, is not widespread in Turkey. Only 5 percent of the population are dog owners, the lowest rate in Europe. Elsewhere in Europe, these figures are far higher. For example, the rate is 21 percent in Germany and 23 percent in the UK, according to a research done by popular Turkish science news platform Evrim Agaci

There are several reasons for this low rate. Dog food is very expensive due to 18 percent VAT, which animal rights defenders say should be reduced to 1 percent. Dwellings are small, especially in big cities, and there are few parks where dogs can be taken out. Often, landlords and neighbours do not like to hear dogs barking. 

There are also some cultural obstacles to adopting dogs. A few schools of Islam advise against keeping them inside, with some even suggesting that if you touch a dog, you must perform ritual ablution.

The ruling AKP is aiming to finalise the draft bill before August, while animal rights defenders are demanding the law be amended in accordance with the sensitivities towards animals in Turkey. They are keen to avoid another incident similar to one that occurred in 1910. Back then, 80,000 dogs were sent from Istanbul to the deserted Sivriada island in the Marmara Sea, where they perished from hunger and thirst, leading to the island's name to be changed to Hayirsizada (Desolate Island).

The draft bill has already deepened existing social polarisation. Everyone agrees, however, that without allocating the necessary budget and taking precautions, uncontrolled dog population growth will continue.

Ayse Karabat

© Qantara.de 2024